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Leah Sharibu and the broken presidential promises

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Napoleon was famously quoted as saying that promises are meant to be broken. Millions of politicians in under-developed, developing and developed countries would gladly accept it as wise and pragmatic.

Wherever politicians are gathered, there they are surrounded by jagged shards of broken promises. It is not that they are not men and women of their words, it is simply that breaking a promise is a time-honoured part of the game of politics. Because the game itself is in deficit in honesty, making and breaking promises smack of smartness.

A president is a politician but his promise is meant to be kept, not broken. A president’s promise means or should mean much more than a casual tossing of buttered words to the public. It is a sacred bond between him and the people; on it rides his integrity and his claims on leadership and statesmanship, both of which are sacred groves where history sits in judgement on the affairs of rulers. There are grave implications when a president’s promise, for a welter of reasons, is either deliberately broken or deliberately set aside. It opens itself to various interpretations, the most delicate being alleged discrimination, and thus leads to ethnic, social and religious disharmony, particularly in a country like ours with existing templates for accommodating such views.

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Here is a good example of what a president’s broken or forgotten promise could do in a polity. It comes from an old story. On February 2018, Boko Haram abducted 109 female students aged between 11 and 19 years, from the Government Girls Science and Technical College, in Yobe State. Five of the girls died in the hands of their abductors. After a negotiated settlement between the federal government and Boko Haram, 103 girls were released. But they refused to release Leah Sharibu, a teenage Christian who chose to remain true to her faith and refused the orders of her captors to convert to Islam. She knew the risk she took but believed, I am sure, that the mighty name of Jesus would work the miracles, make her abductors respect her faith and let her go in peace. It did not happen.

President Muhammadu Buhari was so impressed by her principled stand that he commended her pretty highly.

He promised she would re-join her parents within three days. She did not. On two other occasions, the president made a similar promise but each time the promise was made, it evaporated. Her parents became more and more desperate, naturally. They saw their hope riding on the back of smoke. Still, they seized whatever opportunity that came their way to remind the president of his promise to free their daughter. Silence set in.

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Leah has since lost her bet with the miracle of her faith. Photographs of her released by her captors show her in hijab, evidence that she had been forced to do what she never thought she would: convert to Islam. On March 23, the insurgents informed the world that the teenage mother of one had given birth to her second child, still in captivity, and waiting in vain for the president to make good on his promise.

She lives in the agony of a captive mother; she lives in the forlorn hope of ever being free; she lives, knowing that the Nigerian state has disappointed and abandoned her to whatever fate befalls her.

Buhari comes from the military constituency where senior officers pride themselves on their word being their bond. Meaning, they do not walk back from a promise or munch their words. Something must have gone wrong here. The president surely knows that a promise not kept has this nasty habit of metamorphosing into the three-letter word that leaders and the led alike hate to wear as a fashion statement.

When the latest news about the fate of Leah broke last week, a spokesman for the family, Dr Gloria Puldu, issued a statement that could not but have torn down the tear ducts of everyone with a feeling for the innocent girl and her parents. She said: “It is a very big shame on General Buhari and his entire government. He has abandoned this young child in captivity.” Shame it is and it is shame the president had to carry like sack of broken promises.

Puldu has only one interpretation for Leah and her fate under Buhari. Buhari has abandoned her to her fate because she is a Christian. She pointed out that the government negotiated “..successfully negotiated and secured the release of most if not all 300 Muslim Kankara boys from Katsina in December 2020 just six days after their abduction. In February 2021 they also negotiated and secured the release of about 27 schoolboys from Kagara in Niger State and 317 schoolgirls from Jangebe in Zamfara who all regained their freedom within a few days of their abduction. The same administration has abandoned the remaining 112 Chibok girls for almost seven years.”

I think the religious dimension is a dangerous interpretation of acts of commission or outright failure on the part of the president. In failing to keep his promise to Leah and her parents, he laid himself and his administration open to such charges of religious discrimination. There, you have it – part of the implications of presidential promises broken.

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The president seems to be building a portfolio of what he does with promises that may ultimately define him and his legacy. When the Jangebe students regained their negotiated freedom, Buhari promised it would be the last time the bandits would profit from the criminal exploitation of our young people. He said “no criminal group can be too strong to be defeated by the government.” We, indeed, thought so, particularly under Buhari’s watch because we remember he held his predecessor, President Goodluck Jonathan, in contempt in his electioneering campaigns in 2011, declaring that Jonathan had not “..shown that he can address any serious issue confronting the country.”

Jangebe has since turned out not to be the last time that students would be abducted and held in captivity while their abductors negotiate the fee for their freedom. More and more students have been abducted since then. The president has not made good on his promise. As we speak, more than 40 of them have been in captivity in Kaduna for more than two weeks because the state governor, Nasir El-Rufai, has refused to pay the abductors to secure their freedom. It must be painful for the governor to take and remain resolute in that decision but it is the right thing to do if we must end the circle of abductions, negotiated freedom and abductions. By the time Buhari advised the state governors not to negotiate with the abductors or pay ransom, the damage had been done; the bandits had already succeeded in making the Nigerian state pusillanimous.

The situation is getting even more desperate, forcing the governors of Sokoto, Aminu Tambuwal; Katsina, Bello Masari and Zamfara, Bello Matawalle, to reach out to the European Union, EU, on behalf of the federal government for some help in containing the insecurity in the North-West. There is nothing wrong with the step they took but it must be seen in the context of a sovereign nation in despair and desperation because in failing to keep his promises, the president failed to be strong and be seen to be strong and delivering the message that under his watch, no one can mess with the country and its citizens and get away with it.

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Still, casting about in desperation would only deepen our despair and desperation. The solution to our insecurity is here, provided the government would be willing to end the luxury of doing the same thing and expecting the magic of a different result. Sometimes, I have this hollow feeling that the Nigerian state is blissfully unaware of what we are up against from Boko Haram, kidnappers, bandits and sundry criminal elements that have collectively become the lords of this manor. As Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, the fearless spokesman for the Northern Elders Forum, put it in stark terms last week in a television programme: “This is a country that is facing unprecedented levels of insecurity from all angles and we don’t see any sign that they are doing anything different from what they have done in the last 3, 4 or five years. We can’t have a president that is just sitting there and then blaming everybody else for the woes of the country.”

As CPC presidential candidate in 2011, Buhari said that to tackle the problems facing the country, we needed “…a serious approach, which requires sophisticated thinking (or) we would be heading for trouble in this country.”

We are in that trouble now, in case someone has failed to tell him so.

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